Visiting the old Gods
In July 2013 I went to Africa.
Specifically Zambia and Botswana. Going to Africa has never, ever been in my top ten list of things to do in my adult life. I honestly couldn't definitively tell you why. I grew up watching Tarzan, I tried to emulate the frenetic style of Johnny Weissmuller when I was learning to swim, and when I'm on a rope swing I'm not pretending I'm Han Solo. I was fascinated by Africa as a child. Maybe it was all the horror stories of Apartheid I had read growing up in the late 80's and the inherent troubles that Africa was experiencing that just seemed to make me no longer desire to wrestle a plastic alligator while wearing a loin cloth in a river (Tarzan films, again. Honest). I just no longer wanted to go there. Ever.
Last year my wife mentioned her father and mother were off to Africa and the invitation had been extended to us to go along. Now my wife loves animals and has been to Africa before and loved it. Prior to our meeting she was set to go to Africa for a year with the travel company Exodus. So, aside from the ambivalence I felt towards going there, what did I have to lose? At worst I'd get a tan. I could go and see the Northern Lights some other time.
It could be immediately assumed that I am an ingrate from reading the above. I promise you that isn't the case. My wife and I don't get a great deal of time to travel together and we generally decide mutually where we are going so this was a bit of an unknown for me. My leave time is like most people's. Sacrosanct.
So prior to the trip I picked up a few new bits of kit and then the trip was on us before we knew it. We flew to Johannesburg then a brief hop to Maun airport in Zambia and then to the Royal Livingstone Hotel. While there I caught a glimpse of the Africa that people had talked about so passionately. A herd of zebra ran through the compound at twilight while we sat enjoying the sunset, not more than twenty meters from us. All the guests turned and the noise of the zebras' hooves made a pounding, slightly discordant beat above the constant roar of Victoria Falls , and for a few seconds I understood what people had alluded to on an emotional level. But it was too brief, fleeting and mercurial for me to look upon it as anything other than a moment.
After two days at the Royal Livingstone, which it has to be said reeked of tourist colonial homage harking back to old black and white films set in Africa, we started to make our way to Botswana.
We drove and then crossed the Zambezi river into Botswana by a tin coracle at what was little more than a truck stop. At this point it just felt like any other holiday. No better, no worse, just on holiday and a deep realisation of just how lucky a lot of westerners are.
We flew to the airfield at camp Moremi in a single prop aircraft and you could feel every breath the sky took. It was a relief to get onto solid ground once we landed at Moremi. Our guide, Mok, met us at the airfield. He was energetic, friendly and full of life. We drove to the camp along the sandy roads that reminded me more of riding a camel than being in a four by four, and this was the first time I was asked ‘Do you like the African massage?’ with a hearty laugh following it. The reference was to being jostled about in the back of the vehicle on the bumpy, nonsensical paths that passed as roads there. No matter who said it and how many times it was trotted out I always found myself smiling at it.
Once at the camp, we had lunch and were shown to our so called ‘tents’ that we were to sleep in (see below)
They were a bit more than that. They had electricity until the generators were turned off last thing at night, a veranda, beds and a shower (replete with spiders whose home it was and we were just unwanted house guests). It was here that I began to realise this was no ordinary trip. After unpacking we walked around and took a better look at Camp Moremi before we set off for an afternoon drive to watch the animals. Even at that early point in the trip I'd started to feel far more relaxed than I had done for a number of years. I didn't, for instance, have to worry about where the Metro was, where I needed to get off for the Museo d'Orsay or trying to find somewhere to eat in a tourist trap zone that wouldn't fleece us too badly. There was no mobile phone coverage and no internet for the entirety of our trip. I couldn't recall the last time I didn't have access to one or both of these services and apart from talking to my children, I didn’t miss it in the slightest.
On our first trip out, we came across kudus, elephants , lizards, deer, wildebeest, birds of all kinds and much more. I had the camera firmly glued to my face and my trigger finger was positively screaming with arthritis come the evening.
While we drove back I realised the four of us had hardly spoken for the duration of the drive except to point out things to each other. That afternoon I had not felt like I was on vacation. The drive wasn't something I experienced with my wife and my lovely in-laws. It was something I felt I'd experienced on my own. Once we were out of the vehicle we were family again, discussing what we had seen and our mutual enjoyment of it. We spent a few more days at Moremi. We saw warthogs, leopards and servals. In the evenings we experienced elephants coming into camp, fantastic foods and we laughed and enjoyed each other’s company but on the trips I felt very much alone, though not in a way that made me feel lonely. I just felt that
I was experiencing something that was entirely mine. I wanted to stare at things, to soak up the experience and just be in awe of even the simplest of things that I was seeing in Africa and many things I would never see again.
We moved camps and travelled to Xugana. We flew again on a gut wrenching single prop plane and even the lonely magnificence of seeing a solitary elephant at a waterhole in the middle of nowhere was not enough to want to keep me in the air for a second longer than we needed to be.
We were met at the airfield by Chapman and Kays who were to be our guides for our stay at Xugana. As we approached the island camp Xugana by boat (which I had no idea we were going to - see my indifference to going and not bothering to look at the itinerary too closely), I could not help but feel like I was visiting an island camp lifted straight out of a James Bond film. I had a grin on my face so wide my jaws ached. We were met with the same hospitality we had received at Camp Moremi and made the afternoon’s trip out onto the Okavango Delta. Ploughing straight out across the initial expanse where the occasional hippo would loiter and the cormorants dried their wings in the sun and then into narrow estuaries banked high with reeds was an eye wateringly fantastic experience.
Over the following days we saw the hippo pools, elephants a lot closer than I thought was possible, crocodiles, fish eagles, kingfishers and all manner of other creatures. We went fishing and I managed to catch a nembue which the locals would eat (and did it have some teeth!) and one evening sitting around the fire we just sat and listened to people discussing the complexities of African politics and inter-tribal issues and relationships. It was a far cry from the first world problems we experience.
I was loath to leave Xugana. I'd miss the serenity of being able to hear myself think without any distractions, the animals, to keep taking pictures of the incredible landscape and the trepidation of bombing back to base in the boat through the almost pitch black evening amidst banked reeds with flies splatting on your face because our guide had left it too late. Or being woken up by a hippo that had wandered into the compound and wanted everyone to know it was there! There were so many things to miss.
I shouldn't have worried though, as next it was Savuti. Savuti was for me the absolute highlight of the trip. Our ‘tent’ was right opposite one of the elephants' watering holes.
The food was as usual just delicious and this time the savannah surrounding the camp was nothing short of breathtaking. Vivid African sunsets, leopards and lions were a few things that made me feel calm just by thinking of them.
It was in Savuti that I finally grasped the understanding that ghosts, gods, spirits and demons are part of the firmament there. The experience had somehow relaxed me enough to see things in perhaps not a new light but a more understanding light. The first time it happened I swore I saw a big cat in a tree a little way from us. It was just a branch. Subsequently I saw all manner of animals in the shapes of bushes or the cleft of a tree as I viewed this other country more intimately. I wondered if this was how the gods were created in the minds of men or were the gods, ghosts, spirits and demons all part of the landscape here, no less real to the individual than my toaster is to me at home, but less tangible. A dying breed most people no longer believe in so no longer see. I could understand how totems could be created on such a continent where even an average sunset evoked a spiritual yearning. And I realise that not all of Africa is like this, but that isn't why I wrote this. I wanted to put to paper the profound effect I feel the trip had on me.
On the plane back I felt crushed. I'd be seeing people that I love dearly again but the Andrew that I wanted to be and had walked with for a few weeks would slip back into being the person I wanted to be. The pressures and commitments of everyday life would dictate that I be a different person in a different world. I want to go back to Africa. I miss Africa.